“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” – Helen Keller
I recently completed The Emerald Mile, the thrilling true tale of the fastest boat ride ever down the entire length of the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon during the legendary flood of 1983. I was amazed by the spirit of adventure, passion and determination exhibited by Kenton Grua and his two fellow river guides. They set a nearly untouchable speed record through the Grand Canyon, risking their lives and possibly permission to ever go down the river again.
Due to a release of an immense amount of water from the Glen Canyon Dam, they thought to use this “hydraulic slingshot” to hurl them through 277 miles of some of the most ferocious white water in North America. A few lessons discovered from their preparation, their innovation and working alongside the right people are worth exploring.
The first lesson is their preparation. Grua, the group leader, had prepared for over a dozen years for these two days in the water. He was already something of a mythic figure, a fearless boatman obsessed with the mysteries of the canyon. For years, he had run the river time and time again, exploring its canyons, eddies, rapids, currents and secrets like almost no man before. He even hiked nearly 300 miles alongside the river over a period of weeks and months just to study the canyon, see ancient Anasazi ruins and appreciate the land formation and course of the Colorado River. He almost seemed to have memorized the entire route, with every turn and nuance that the river took, in order to anticipate what would happen as the water rose and new obstacles appeared and intensified.
The next lesson is innovation. Grua had restored a wooden dory boat named the Emerald Mile, one that was already iconic and that he had snatched from a bonfire after a massive wreck when the boat had been destroyed. He spent a few years rebuilding the watercraft but with several new features: First, the ability to have multiple oarsman rowing on the dory; second, allowing the main oarsman to stand up while rowing to use different muscles and see what lied ahead; and third, the ability to easily flip the massive boat over in white water rapids in critical moments. Grua’s insane attention to detail and the fact he had personally shaped every grain and curve of the dory allowed him to know how to push its limits and accomplish what had never been done before.
The last lesson is assembling the right team. Grua was a visionary and hard worker, but his fellow oarsmen were the best among the most experienced river guides the Grand Canyon had ever seen. The youngest, Ren, had an explosive force when rowing and carried the group through some of the most challenging moments during the run. Petschek was older and had the endurance and stamina to get them through the final hours of night when his two companions were in a coma-like sleep after nearly losing their lives at the Crystal rapids. Together, they formed a team of boats men with faith in each other, an unconquerable spirit and detailed insight of one another to the point that they could anticipate eachother’s every move and reaction to anything the river could throw at them.
Were they successful? Well, they smashed the speed record by 10 hours, rowing 277 miles in under 38 hours through some of the toughest white water on the planet. Following this once-in-a-lifetime adventure, they didn’t publish it in newspapers, go on a speaking circuit or even write a book. No, they didn’t do it for fame or money. They had in their heart the satisfaction of knowing they had accomplished something truly remarkable and were held in the highest regard by hundreds of river guides along the Grand Canyon, where their story is still told today.
Why engage in the world in such an expansive way, putting our lives, perhaps our souls, at hazard? The Emerald Mile reminds us that we were meant to think big. We might ask ourselves, “When was the last time I hung everything on the line for the sake of a shaky and hopeful vision?” We might fail catastrophically in the process, but we might also realize our dreams.
Enjoy the run and go big in your adventures.